How the West Was Spanked

At the very end of 1931, during the filming of the Western Hello Trouble, the 24-year-old leading lady Lina Basquette got married.

It was her fourth marriage (track record: one divorce, twice widowed) and the new husband later turned out to be a bigamist: Hello Trouble indeed! But nobody except him knew that on the day the film unit threw an on-set party for the bride-to-be. One of the joyous things that happened at the shindig is briefly described by Jon Tuska in his 1976 book, The Filming of the West: ‘Lina was soundly spanked, Western style.’

That sounds a lot like the traditional spanking of a bachelorette at her hen party, a custom still widely followed in America today; so it’s interesting that Tuska, a distinguished historian of the screen Western, defines it instead in terms of movie genre.

But is it right to talk of a ‘Western style’ spanking in 1931?

The majority of early screen spanking scenes were not in Westerns, but in comedies of every kind: romantic and farcical, screwball and domestic. That’s understandable given that comedies tend to focus on relationships between men and women, whereas Westerns tend to be about the kind of manly adventure in which girls are often nothing more than either decoration or distraction. There were spankings in Westerns, as in most movie genres, but their number is relatively modest, maybe one every few years, until the half-decade after the Second World War saw the average go up to around two a year.

There were cowboy spanking scenes in comic books, too:

06a Two Gun Kid 194806b Roy Rogers 1951

And the genre’s association with spanking then continued on the small screen during its television heyday from the late Fifties through to the mid-Sixties.

Of course, this apparent post-war frequency change could be because pre-1945 films with relevant scenes have simply not been noticed, or no longer exist. But as things stand, it looks as though the Western became a ‘spanking genre’ relatively late in its big-screen development. That impression is reinforced by the first two known spanking scenes in movie Westerns, both from the second decade of the twentieth century.

The Horse Wrangler (1914), described by an early and not wholly literate exhibitor as ‘a two-reel Western drama that is different than any ever before presented on our screen’, stars Miriam Cooper.

She later said it was one of her favorite movies. Relatively little is known of the story, but we do know that Miriam plays Mary Bailey, and that her husband, a boss-man played by Eugene Pallette, has at least three times her body mass. Maybe that’s why she dresses herself as a man and runs off to join a group of horse wranglers in the West. And that’s presumably when this happens to her:

I’d guess that’s some kind of initiation ritual that gets an unintended and unexpected sexual edge from the fact that, despite appearances (and perhaps despite expectations too), she’s a girl. What it doesn’t much resemble is a conventional spanking scene of the kind that later came to prominence.

At first glance, the spanking in Riddle Gawne (1918) seems a lot more familiar. The participants are the original Western screen hero, William S. Hart, as Riddle and Gertrude Short playing his niece Jane.

But at second glance, and especially in the footage itself, this looks a lot like the kind of horseplay often seen in family home movies of slightly later in the century, and not a lot like a significant element of the story.

So the early Western spankings are atypical. And after Riddle Gawne, so far as we know, there wasn’t another one for ten years. But in the interim, the genre had been developing in another medium.

It’s never wise to posit a single cause for a large historical phenomenon, but one major factor in the direction taken by Westerns in the early twentieth century was surely the work of one man: Zane Grey (1872-1939), a prolific author of Western novels from 1903 onwards; many of them were published posthumously. I can’t claim to have read them all, and plead in mitigation that he wrote nearly a hundred. But I have read enough to be able to say that he’s another of those writers who return to the subject of spanking more often than the likely statistical average.

A lot of it is just talk. For example, in The Hash Knife Outfit (1933), Jim Traft’s girlfriend Molly Dunn leaves him and his uncle advises him to go get her:

‘She won’t come willin’, not very soon. So I’d jest fetch her back by force. A good spankin’ wouldn’t do no harm. But I reckon you haven’t nerve enough for thet. Molly has given the town people lots to gossip about. Glory will tell you. An’ you in turn can give them somethin’ to gossip about.’

‘Ahuh…Thanks, Uncle,’ rejoined Jim, soberly. ‘I’ll consider your advice. It appeals to me, especially the spanking part.’

As you’d expect, the subject seems to evoke more mixed reactions from the girls. In The Shepherd of Guadaloupe (1930), redheaded Virginia Lundeen is having a clandestine meeting with her beau, despite parental disapproval on both sides. He’s concerned about his father catching them. ‘Would that great hulking brute dare kick you?’ she asks. And he replies, ‘Virginia, would your nice, loving, angel dad dare – well, let us say, spank you?’ The answer is, ‘He would not,’ and the very suggestion kills the levity between them. In The Man of the Forest (1919), Helen Rayner tells of how her younger sister Bo, a wilful wildcat of a teenager, was recently spanked with a ruler by a male schoolteacher. The embarrassed Bo denies it: ‘Never! He missed me.’ And in Wilderness Trek (1944), which has an Australian setting, the pretty, chestnut-haired teenager Leslie Slyter, noted for her ‘fine physique’, is left speechless with fury when she puts her nose in where it’s unwanted and is told, ‘You’d better run from me, pronto, or I’ll spank the daylights out of you.’

But other Grey girls take different attitudes. In Nevada (1928), Hettie Ide seems entirely equable about it when she is determined to go out riding alone despite warnings, and one of the ranchers tells her, ‘I sure know what you need’: she laughs back, ‘To be spanked, I suppose.’ Perhaps she’s not thinking of it as a serious prospect, but the hero of the short story Amber’s Mirage (1929), Al Shade, has his own prediction of the likely effect of a spanking on his girlfriend Ruby. After she kept him up late by refusing to stop kissing him, his older friend Jim Crawford tells him, ‘You ought to have spanked her.’ But Jim replies, ‘Spank Ruby? Gosh! It would be like startin’ an avalanche or somethin’.’ The 2012 audiobook dramatization of the story, by Graphic Audio, changes the line to make the erotic dimension more obvious: ‘That’d be like throwing fuel on the fire.’

There’s a more sustained and complex treatment of the subject in the novel Canyon Walls (1930), in which a former gunslinger, using the name Monty, comes to Arizona and gets a job as a ranch-hand, calling himself Sam Hill. The daughter of the ranch is 18-year-old Rebecca Keetch, who has a ‘superb build’ and is much courted, but also very spoiled. The man she actually wants is ‘Sam’, but there are several difficulties in the way of the romance, not the least of them being that he’s not a Mormon. Not to mention the fact that he seems to take no notice of her, and fails even to offer to escort her to Salt Lake City to buy new clothes. When she comments on this, he tells her mother:

‘Lady, if I was her dad…’

‘But you’re – not,’ sobbed Rebecca.

‘Shore it’s lucky fer you I’m not. For I’d spank some sense into you…’

Later on, he has taken her shopping after all, but on the way back there’s nothing to eat for lunch. Spoiled Rebecca asks, ‘Are you going to starve me into submission?’ He replies, ‘Wal, I reckon if someone took a willow switch to your bare legs, wal, he might get a little submission out of you.’ This appals her, and later, when they are caught in a storm and have to stop overnight, she insists that they drive on regardless, or it will ruin her reputation. He doesn’t understand, but draws an inference from the earlier conversation:

‘Where I come from a man can entertain honest desire to spank a crazy gurl without havin’ evil intentions charged agin him!’

‘You can spank me to your heart’s content – but Sam – take me home first.’

Later on, Sam is making a haystack, and Rebecca has an overpowering desire to slide down it, which she does, ‘somewhat at the expense of modesty’. (That’s a delicate way of saying she shows her bloomers.) Sam is worried about his work being ruined:

‘Rebecca, if you slide down heah again you’ll be sorry,’ he shouted warningly.

‘What’ll you do?’

‘I’ll spank you.’

‘Sam Hill!… You wouldn’t dare.’

‘So help me heaven, I will.’

She did not in the least believe him, but it was evident that his threat made her project only the more thrilling. There was at least a possibility of excitement.

‘Look out. I’m acoming,’ she cried, with a wild, sweet trill of laughter.

As she slid down Monty leaped in to intercept her. A scream escaped from Rebecca, but it was only because of her unruly skirts. That did not deter Monty. He caught her and stopped her high off the ground, and there he pinioned her.

According to the cliché, a man in this situation doesn’t know whether to kiss a girl or spank her, and after some hesitation he takes the kissing option. Later, Rebecca has to explain it to her mother, but manages to leave out the kissing (and indeed the ‘unruly skirts’):

‘Sam got perfectly furious. He has a terrible temper. He commanded me not to slide off that stack. And when I asked him what he’d do if I did – he declared he’d spank me. Imagine! I only meant to tease him. I wasn’t going to slide at all. Then, you can see I had to… So I did.’

She also insists that she won’t talk to him, to which her mother reasons, ‘He only threatened to spank you. And I’m sure you gave him provocation.’ So she tries to get Sam to apologize, and he admits that he is indeed ‘orful sorry’ – but only sorry that he didn’t spank her.

But when there’s another haystack-climbing incident soon afterwards, it results in more talk and more evasion:

‘You won’t spank me, Sam?’ she asked, in impish glee.

‘No. Much as I’d like to an’ you shore need it, I cain’t.’

‘Bluffer… Gentile cowpuncher… showing yellow… marblehearted fiend.’

It’s as if now she secretly wants to be spanked as a proof of his love for her: the subject teeters uncertainly on the borderline between an affront and an erotic trigger. But the talk never comes to anything – except marriage.

But Grey had already handled the subject systematically in his earlier novel, Lost Pueblo (1927), which was also his most demonstrably influential contribution to the ongoing convergence of spanking with the Western.

20-year-old Janey Endicott’s father, who disapproves of many of the foibles of the younger generation, takes her out to Flagerstown, Arizona, to meet Phillip Randolph, who has none of the foibles of the younger generation and who, for good measure, is the son of an old friend. They had met before in New York, where Randolph was a fish out of water, and he fell in love with her. Now he’s in Arizona pursuing another passion: archaeology. He’s looking for the remains of a lost pueblo, or Indian settlement, in the desert.

In New York, Mr Endicott noticed the young man’s feelings, and that’s the real reason they are in Arizona now: he intends to get them married and thereby save Janey from the attentions of the east-coast lounge lizards she seems to attract, and save her too from all those pesky foibles of the younger generation. He and Randolph have a discussion about it in which it becomes clear that he cannot control her: she just won’t obey him.

‘I’d like to see you or anybody else make Janey obey.’

‘I could and I would,’ declared Randolph.

‘My dear young Arizona archaeologist! May I ask how?’ returned Endicott, not without sarcasm and amusement.

‘I’d take that young lady across my knee and spank her soundly.’

‘Good lord! You don’t know what you’re saying… Why, if I subjected Janey to such indignity, she’d – she’d – well, what wouldn’t she do? Wrecking the place where it happened would be least… Yet, oh – how I have wanted to do that same little thing!’

Endicott tells Randolph that the best course of action would be ‘to give Janey a terrific jar’: be very nice to her, then kidnap her, take her out to the desert, terrify her and then bring her back. ‘She’d have to marry you,’ says Endicott. ‘I would insist upon it.’ And Randolph, much against his better judgement, is overborne into agreeing.

What neither father nor prospective son-in-law knows is that the whole conversation was overheard by Janey. At first she’s furious with her father and feels sorry for Randolph. Then she remembers that he said he would spank her.

In a sudden fury she leaped up and began to pace the little room. There was not very much in the way of disgust, contempt, amazement, pride, wrath, that did not pass through her mind. What an atrocious insult!

She decides to take revenge by going along with the plot, with the intention of denouncing them afterwards and then going home to New York for a quickie divorce.

On the day she expects to be abducted, she gives some thought to the question of what she should wear. She reasons that, if she dresses in sturdy riding gear, it will look as if she knew about the plan all along; so instead she wears an ‘absurdly short’ skirt. We must therefore remind ourselves that we are in the 1920s, not anytime after 1965, and that’s probably just as well in view of several things that are going to happen.

The mock-kidnapping takes place as anticipated, though she didn’t expect to be slung over his shoulder in the process. (‘How powerful he was. She might have been a sack of potatoes.’) She also pretends not to have foreseen the effects of mounting a horse:

Her skirt slipped halfway up above her knees. She stood in the stirrups and pulled it down, but at best it was so short that it exposed several inches of bare skin above her stockings.

‘Is this supposed to be a movie or a leg show?’ she asked, bitingly.

She certainly wasn’t expecting to get soaked, causing the skirt to shrink even shorter, so that she begins to resemble ‘one of the chorus girls in the Follies’.

There’s one thing she certainly should have been expecting, but evidently forgot about. But when she disregards his order not to follow him to a particularly dangerous archaeological site, the prospect comes back into view:

‘Look here, you spoiled brat – if you cross this dangerous place again you’ll be sorry.’

‘Why will I?’ asked Janey, immensely interested.

‘Because you’ll get what you should have had – long ago and many a time.’

‘And what’s that, teacher?’

‘A damned good spanking.’

Despite what she overheard earlier, Janey doesn’t believe he’s serious, and laughs at him. So he tells her he meant it:

‘We are in Arizona now. And if you can’t see the difference between real life and modern froth, I’m sorry for you. Most of America is too far gone for a good, healthy spanking. It has, I might say, a vastly different kind of interest in a young woman’s anatomy. But among the few pioneers left in the West, thank God, there are parents who are still old-fashioned. I’m not a parent. All the same, I can make myself into one, and give you damn well what you need.’

Convinced that he’s delusional and determined to put him to the test, she goes out onto an even more dangerous ledge.

‘Philly, sweetheart, you’ve kidnapped the wrong woman,’ she says. ‘Go and be damned,’ he replies. ‘And you’d better stay over there, for if you ever come back, you’ll pay for this.’ Which she does:

He seized her before she could move a hand. Surprise and fear inhibited her natural fighting instinct. Randolph lifted her – carried her.

Suddenly he sat down on the flat rock and flung her over his knees, face down. All her body went rigid. A terror of realization and horror of expectation clamped her mind. He spanked her with such stunning force that it seemed every bone in her body broke to the blow. The pain to her flesh was hot, stinging, fierce. The shock to her mind exceeded the sum of all shocks Janey had ever sustained. She sank limp over his knees. Smack! Harder this time. Her head and feet jerked up. Her teeth jarred in their sockets. Again! Again! Again!

Janey all but fainted. Intense fury saved her that. She rolled off his knees to the ground and bounded up like a cat. A bursting tearing gush of hot blood ran riot in her breast.

‘I’ll – kill – you!’ she panted, low and deep.

Randolph retorts that it has been done, she can’t change that. ‘And I did it. I shall have that unique distinction among your acquaintances.’ she slinks off to bed, humiliated, and every time she writhes with injured vanity, she is ‘made painfully aware again of the maltreated part of her anatomy’, which is still sore the following morning.

We can wrap up the rest of the story in short order, because it’s what you’d expect: Janey’s feelings turn in Randolph’s favor, with a happy ending for all. But there is one little wrinkle to be ironed out. ‘You beat me,’ she points out. And he corrects her: ‘I’m sorry, of course. But I’d do it again under the same circumstances. Only I want you to understand I didn’t beat you. I spanked you. There is a very great difference.’ At that stage she doesn’t care about the difference, only knows that what happens leaves her with feelings that seem inextricably mixed. It’s only later that she’s able to acknowledge the distinction he makes:

‘I love you. I love you. I love you…It was what you did to me. Oh! I confess. I deserved it. I was no good – and if not actually bad I was headed for bad… Oh, Phillip, you spanked some sense into me in time, and your desert changed and won me. I bless you for making me a woman.’

As you can see, I’ve been able to pepper this account of the book with some pictures of an actual woman (and a man too), and that’s because Grey’s novel was promptly optioned for the movies. It was filmed on location in Death Valley the following year, with Jack Holt and Nancy Carroll in the leading roles, with the less archaeologically arcane title, The Water Hole:

Janey was renamed Judith and another inevitable change concerned her apparel for the abduction (and spanking): instead of a skirt shrunken to mid-thigh, she was allowed to wear something more sensible for a trek into the desert.

Which meant that the spanking scene looked like this:

Sadly, it is now a lost film, though contemporary testimony tells us that we might have found the spanking disappointing: he threatens to ‘spank the daylights out of you’ when she uses their water supply to have a bath, but once she’s over his knee he only slaps her four times, while for her part she remains passive – ‘not a kick, a writhe, or a struggle’. But at least what remains of the scene is a rather attractive photo!

But Zane Grey arguably bequeathed us more than that. He was the most influential Western author of his generation, and his books were the basis of innumerable other movies. (Well, if you insist, 111 other movies.) Three of these featured spanking scenes: Man of the Forest (1933), West of the Pecos (1945) and Thunder Mountain (1947). They weren’t, strictly speaking, Zane Grey spanking scenes, because his novels were often filmed rather in the manner that the James Bond books later were: the studios took the titles, but weren’t always entirely faithful to the stories. But more than that, he established many of the genre’s standard tropes: he defined many of the ways in which his successors thought about the Old West, and recreated it in their own work. And in particular, since ‘our’ subject keeps coming up, albeit more often in word than deed, perhaps it is not altogether too far-fetched to credit Zane Grey as the man who helped to put the spanking into Westerns.

7 thoughts on “How the West Was Spanked

  1. Lars Christian Steenberg says:

    There surely is something about rugged cowboys spanking bratty girls that appeals to men and women alike. If in doubt have a look at the pages with descriptions of all the modern cowboy and spanking romance novels from Kindle and other providers. Probably both men and women have a secret wish for life to be less complicated and the genders more old-fashioned and typical. That also goes for Zane Grey’s westerns where the spoiled girl finally realizes that she had a spanking coming and that she came to love the cowboy that gave it to her.


    • Harry says:

      I should think you are right when you say that there are many people who prefer what perhaps we had better call ‘traditional’ (rather than ‘typical’) gender roles, but I also think it isn’t sensible or useful to generalize about human behavior. There are certainly a lot of other people in the world who find traditional gender roles restrictive and uncomfortable – not only women and LGBT, but straight men too.

      What you call ‘spanking romance novels’ (as distinct from romance novels that sometimes have a spanking in them) actually have very little to tell us about the wishes and preferences of society at large, because they are, by definition, works that cater for the specific tastes of a subculture – so they are also not the subject matter I write about here. If this kind of material is as popular as you imply, then it may tell us something about the size of that subculture as a section of society, but that would arguably be nothing very surprising, since statistics have long shown that spanking is a common fantasy: according to one survey, around 30% of women fantasize about being spanked.

      But obviously that doesn’t mean that, if you were to go out and spank three women, you’d end up with two assault charges and one satisfied lady. The important point is that the fantasy has nothing directly to do with how people want to live their lives outside the private spaces of their own minds. One of the least agreeable habits of some people who like M/F spanking scenarios is to argue that this represents a desirable mode of social organization rather than just a pleasant imaginative trope – which leaves us vulnerable to the criticism that we’re trying to promote misogyny, abuse and inequality. A fantasy is not the same as a ‘secret wish’, and shouldn’t be used as a basis for social conservatism.


  2. Cyndie says:

    Can you identify the movie from the picture of the cowboy in white hat spanking girl in black hat and plaid shirt? I can’t place it.


      • Cyndie says:

        That’s the one. Thanks for getting back to me, Harry. I wish the names of the shows/movies were under each picture.

        Is there someplace online where I can see the clip of this from the movie?


      • Harry says:

        Whether or not to caption is a structural decision (specific, individual detail versus the flow of the article as a whole), and I opt differently depending on the context, but in any event the details are usually to be found in the pictures’ filenames. (After clicking on the picture, look at the last part of the URL in the address bar.) Also, I’m not sure that captioning was even possible five years ago when the article was published, nor, if it was, that I knew how to do it back then.

        If the passage of time makes some things achievable, sadly it also takes other things away. The scene was once freely available online, but it seems those days are gone. At least, the clip is nowhere to be found on any of the obvious places I looked today. 😦


      • Cyndie says:

        OK Harry, again thanks so much for getting back to me quickly. I’m going to see if my public library has that movie by any chance because I can’t get to it online so far.



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